From exorbitant long distance calls to free Facetime — Migrant workers: connecting to home through the years

(This article recently appeared as a two-part series in Weekend Balita, a Filipino-American newspaper based in Los Angeles)

My son and I were watching the Los Angeles Lakers play against the Clippers. We were discussing the game as it moves along. We were talking about the Lakers continuing slide to the bottom as the season ends. And sad as it was, it was even sadder to talk about the prospect of a Lakers team without Kobe Bryant.

Facetime logo
Facetime logo

The happy thing though was that moment of father and son bonding, I was here in Los Angeles, US of A while my son was in Quezon City, Philippines. We were on Facetime.

Some years back, who would have thought that such connectivity would even be possible? Two people watching the same game from opposite sides of the earth and talking about it like they were together in a living room.

(Uh…well, yes, the people behind the legendary TV series Star Trek have thought of that many years ago.)

Undoubtedly, the internet and related technology have affected most of humankind in mostly good ways. But most of all, the people who were dramatically affected by these inventions, in a mostly good way, are the millions of migrant workers and expatriates.

One of my aunts came to the US in the early 70s. She came by herself and left behind her husband and a one-year-old son. Eventually, she was able to bring her family to the US.

But during the time that she was by herself here in the US, it took around two weeks for her mails to reach home and also for our mails to reach her. Apparently, it was hard for her that she had to call a lot. One time, my grandfather berated her: O, tawag ka nang tawag. Baka wala ng matira sa suweldo mo niyan.

But of course, grandpa was trying to keep himself from breaking into tears when he was saying that to my aunt.

Grandpa’s house was “standing room only” whenever my aunt was on the telephone. There was no speaker phone yet, so everyone had to huddle around the phone to hear what she was saying. I was about 12 years old at the time. My cousins and I had to behave really well while that call was ongoing because any misdemeanor, no matter how slight, would certainly be unforgivable.

We were children at a time when just a mean stare (sa Tagalog makuha ka sa tingin) from anyone in the family’s pecking order was enough to get us back to our senses.


My grandparents’ house was one of the very few households in the neighborhood that had a telephone line. Those who didn’t have telephone lines had to queue on phone booths at the Philippine Long Distance Telephone (PLDT) offices. There was one in Pasay City which was about three kilometers away from our house.

Once in while, my mother would use those PLDT phone booths to call my aunt, particularly when she would ask for my aunt’s help and she didn’t want her parents and siblings to know.

My mother and my aunt exchanged a lot of letters and they were long — written back-to-back on pieces of paper — obviously to minimize the weight of the mail envelope. Sending air mails to the US was also expensive.

The long distance calls lessened when my aunt got her family to join her in the US. But the exchanges of cards and letters between siblings and parents remained constant. And of course, once a year she would send a box of goods for everyone to share. We called those boxes simply as “padala.” They usually contained t-shirts, shoes, socks, corned beef, sardines, toys and anything that had a “made in USA” tag on it.

The “balikbayan” boxes that we now know started in 1987 when President Corazon Aquino, in recognition of the contributions of migrant workers to the economy, issued an executive order that obliterate tax and duties imposed on “padala” boxes coming from overseas Filipinos.

Moving on, the days of John Lennon look-alikes (those guys with long Afro hair, sporting round-lens dark glasses and the peace sign sleeveless sandos) came to an end almost simultaneously as the vinyl (we called single or long playing or simply LP) which was eclipsed by the cassette tape.


The cassette tape also managed to edge up the bulky 8-track cartridges, which for some time boosted the riding pleasure for jeepneys and mini-buses. At its heyday, drivers file up these 8-track cartridges in the dashboards of their jeepneys and mini-buses. Sometimes, these drivers leave just enough square space on the windshield for them to still see the road.

The popularity of the cassette tape was greatly propelled by the portable AM/FM cassette players that came along with it. They came in all sizes — from the size of a transistor radio and to the big ones that were powerful enough to jazz up a garden or a beach party.

The technology was godsend for portable music listeners. But what made them very useful to the overseas workers at that time (mostly seamen and skilled laborers employed in Middle East countries) was its ability to record from within its system and from outside.

For clarity, the voice recorder or tape recorder had been around before the portable cassette players became popular but its market was mostly confined to journalists and other professionals. Apparently, there was not much incentive for the mass of people to buy them.

It is not known how the so-called “voice tape” became a fad with migrant workers. But it probably started when some people recorded songs on their portable cassette players and then they put short auditory dedication messages on them before they sent the tape to faraway loved ones.

Later on, the music was apparently abandoned in favor pure monologues. Hence, it was called “voice tape.”

Migrant workers fell in love with “voice taping” because recording a monologue was way easier than writing one’s thoughts. And most important of all, the process naturally brings out the exact emotions that the sender wants to convey.

I had a kababata whose father was a welder in Saudi Arabia. In one instance, we were invited to listen to his father’s voice tape. My friend’s father talked about how food was so abundant in one of their employer’s houses. He worked for a member of the Saudi royal family. He talked about the crazy weather in Saudi Arabia and how big were the fish that he and his co-workers had caught during one of their days off. We laughed when some of our names were mentioned in the voice tape, including some funny crazy moments that were all known to us. There was a roller coaster of emotions as the voice tape rolled on.

He never complained about anything but somehow we all got the sense that working abroad was a hard and lonely endeavor. We knew that it was hard to be away from home. At the end of the tape playing, my friend, his siblings and his mother were all brought to tears.

If it was that hard for those who remained to cope with the absence of a family member, you could just imagine how much harder it was for the person who went away. And to think that we lived in a relatively happy neighborhood.


The next craze that came around was the Betamax (videocasette magnetic tape). I couldn’t recall anyone of my neighbors who came home from abroad who did not buy a Betamax. Some bought their Betamax from where they came from and bought them locally as soon as they got home. The Betamax was like a trophy for the returning Saudi Boys (we referred to the whole Middle East as Saudi during that time).
Probably very few migrant workers were able to record their narratives into the Betamax tapes. You would need a camcorder to do that and they were not cheap.

We, Pinoys have this penchant to turn brand names or an object’s name into a verb that takes the action of what that object is used for. For example, Kodak , a camera brand, is used this way: “Kodakan mo ako” which means “take a picture of me.” It was in the same way that betamax became another Filipino verb. “I-betamax natin yan. (Meaning, let’s put that in a video.),” people would say then.

It didn’t take long for betamax to evolve into other meanings such as sleazy, scandalous, vulgar, sex video, porn etch. So, when a friend tells you: “Pare may betamax ako ni …… at ni …..” That means, the gang is coming together to watch betamax.
Well, between then and now, the difference would be: you’re tipped off and then you search for it on the internet.

Ok, let’s keep walking down the memory lane.


Later on, camcorders evolved into smaller versions that were known as handycams. It was at this stage when they also became another overseas workers’ “thing.” I mean, it became something that they would acquire if they can afford it just like those distinctive “enormous” Saudi gold rings, bracelets and necklaces.

It was probably the middle of 1980s, when home videos became a popular pastime for those who can afford a handycam. However, the craze was not able to duplicate the popularity and usefulness that the cassette tapes achieved with regards to migrant workers’ efforts to connect to home.

For a while, prepaid phone cards or just simply called phone cards sold like hot cakes among overseas workers and expatriates. With the internet and the digital technology still in its infancy, the phone cards allowed migrant workers to dial home anywhere and anytime.
When my wife and I came to US in 2005, we spent around $100 to $300 a month to be able to connect to home on a regular basis. That was, of course, big money relative to what we were earning. But migrant workers would spend their last penny just to keep in touch with family and friends.

Instant messaging and chat rooms were already available for free through Yahoo Messenger but they were not enough. The yearning was simply insatiable.

Certain technology have been around but did not become available to the general public because they were too expensive, and therefore not marketable, or restricted for government use. For example, video conferencing have been around since the early 1990s. Although it was not the internet based video calling that we use now, it practically was the same concept.

The big break apparently came when these geniuses got it right with the webcam. Not only that they were able simplify the webcam but they also managed to make it marketable (read: Affordable). And later on, they were able to build it in the gadgets themselves.

Arguably, the next big break was when they came up with the smart phones. It literally and figuratively put everything into an individual’s grasp. Everything is within the reach of the fingers; Google, the social media, games, radio, TV, and best of all, the capability to be in real-time with friends loved ones. Regular people, though they may find it to be an amazing technological leap, usually just take this for granted. There are few reasons for them to be excited about it. For migrant workers, real time is simply precious.

It is not perfect but the only thing that possibly could thump it out from its prime spot in a migrant worker’s heart is when technology would someday allow us to “teleport.” You know, just like how they were doing in the Star Trek.

Real time or as it happens. To be like you were there as moments unfold. Imagine how big is that for someone who has not been home for some time. To be like you there were when your daughter was blowing her birthday cake. To be like you were there when your mother was showing you how to cook a new recipe. To be like you were there when they were changing your grandson’s diaper. To be like you there when your children were opening up the balikbayan box that you just sent and they were showing you each of the items one by one.

Of course, “to be like you were there” is not enough. But how much strength, how much sanity, how much courage, how much joy, how much hope, those real time moments bring into the life of a migrant worker is just immeasurable.
Friendster and Myspace, the forerunners of Facebook, deserve credit too for a starting a revolution in social media which spawned Twitter, Instagram and Youtube.

“Status update” or posting “selfies” are mostly amusement activities for the rest of us. But for a migrant worker the “status updates” and “selfies” of loved ones, family, friends and acquaintances are bridges and passages that bring him to his cravings, to his longings, to his self-assurance, to his out of sight identity and to his peace of mind.

Abner Galino
The author is a poet and a writer. He was a cultural worker before he became a reporter for Tinig ng Masa and Malaya Midday Edition during the Marcos regime. He later became a reporter of People's Tonight shortly after 1986 EDSA Revolution. He went on to become its Chief of Reporters, City Editor and News Editor. He retired after 15 years in the Journal Group of Publications. He now writes for Weekend Balita and the US Asian Post (USAP), weekly Filipino-American newspapers based in Los Angeles, California.

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